Hospitality players must look beyond Expo 2020, experts say


Technology is an enabler but it is not driving the customer experience, hospitality experts say
Technology is an enabler but it is not driving the customer experience, hospitality experts say

Dubai - More than 700 hospitality owners, investors, developers and operators from across the Middle East and Africa gathered on Monday to kick off the 17th edition of AHIC


Rohma Sadaqat

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Published: Mon 20 Sep 2021, 6:01 PM

The UAE’s hospitality sector is firmly on track as it recovers from the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, aided by the boost provided by the upcoming Expo 2020 Dubai, however hospitality players must set their sights on maintaining the positive momentum beyond the mega event.

Speaking to Khaleej Times on the sidelines of the 2021 Arabian Hotel Investment Conference (AHIC 2021) which opened its doors in Dubai on Monday, experts highlighted the importance of having a healthy portfolio of upcoming projects to cater to the pent up demand for international travel.

“We believe in the future of hospitality,” said Tim Cordon, senior area vice president for the Middle East & Africa region at Radisson Hotel Group. “While there have been concerns about the pandemic in the short-term, I don’t feel like we will be facing any issues in the long-term. What we are seeing now is the pent up demand for travel balance the situation.”

He added that 2021 is going to be the year where everyone is getting used to the new normal. Right now, he agreed that there are still challenges for travellers navigating the rules and requirements for safe travel, however, the majority of travellers have already adapted to and accepted the circumstances.

Speaking on key trends that emerged during the height of the pandemic, he said that staycations and workations will remain popular among residents, alongside the demand for international holidays and vacations. “Domestic tourism has been critically important for the beginning of the recovery period, but now we are seeing the demand for more international travel. What I really see as emerging is the much heralded but not really delivered ‘bleisure’ segment, where people mix business and leisure. I think this might finally arrive by the end of this year and as we head into 2022.”

He also observed that people are taking less business trips than before, but that they are taking these trips for a longer period of time. “Connecting with clients and business partners face-to-face suddenly has a preciousness about it and it is considered much more valuable now than it was before the pandemic.”

Another trend that has gained steam over the past few years is digitization. “We are right in the middle of it right now, but that does not necessarily mean that you will have robots serving you in your hotel room; it can mean something as simple as chatting with the hotel using an app. Technology is an enabler but it is not driving the customer experience; it is all about broadening the scope of what services you are offering through digitisation.”

Looking back at the lessons that the pandemic taught the brand, Cordon pointed to two that stuck out. The first revolves around the people in the industry. “You can have the most beautiful building and the most glamorous hotel, but that means nothing without the people that care about the guest experience. Secondly, we learnt that there is no such thing as a crisis without some sort of opportunity. We decided that we wanted to keep our hotels open as much as possible and what we found, as a result, was that in many markets we were the only hotels that were open and doing business.”

Looking ahead, he shared details about the brand’s expansion plans. “We have signed more than 30 hotels since the start of the pandemic across the MEA region. In fact, 2021 has actually been a record year of signings and openings for us; we opened 15 hotels in 2021, and we also have plans to open resorts on the Palm in the beginning of next year.”

Other hotel brands also shared the same sentiment. Carlos Khneisser, VP of Development for the MEA region at Hilton, said that the brand’s pipeline has grown to 146 hotels and over 35,000 rooms in the region. Its flagship Hilton Hotels & Resorts brand leads the way as the MEA region’s largest pipeline brand by number of rooms according to latest STR data, with the midscale Hilton Garden Inn and upscale DoubleTree by Hilton also featuring in the top five positions.

“Looking at this year alone, we have several marquee properties that have already opened, including Hilton Abu Dhabi Yas Island, Hilton Salwa Beach as well as LXR Mango House Seychelles,” Khneisser said. “The outlook is even more positive in the medium-term and we are firmly on-track with our development plans across the region. In the next three to five years, Hilton will double its portfolio in the Middle East and Africa.”

Hilton’s EVP and president for the EMEA region, Simon Vincent, highlighted the importance of culture and purpose to delivering great hospitality. “As our industry emerges from the greatest challenge we have ever faced and customer confidence continues to rise, we are now in a position where guests are returning to travel with expectations for memorable experiences delivered by passionate hospitality professionals. Ensuring that we work with our owners to meet these expectations and retain the best talent is vital as the industry continues its recovery.”

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